Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Rocking Horse Man

The horse that came home again.
Years ago, when our son was born, my professional yacht skipper husband, Alan Lees, decided that he no longer wanted to be away from home for months on end. He didn't want to miss Charlie's baby years - all those milestones. Alan's last long trip was to the Canaries to skipper a charter yacht for the winter. The baby was six weeks old when we borrowed a small apartment in Los Cristianos on Tenerife. (It was a quieter place back then - not quite the extension of Las Americas it has since become.) I flew down with the baby in January and spent several months living there - blissfully - with Alan joining us whenever he could. My parents came for a couple of weeks and later on my mother-in-law joined us for another fortnight. I remember it as one of the happiest times of my life: warm and sunny, with a gorgeous and thriving new baby in a country where children were always welcome.

When we returned to Scotland - although Alan carried on working as a professional sailor from time to time, he was also looking for a way of working which would allow him to spend more time at home. He had always been artistic and creative, always been good with his hands and as a sailor he had undertaken a certain amount of shipwrighting work when and where necessary. So he became a woodcarver. Sometimes the two professions joined together in wholly unexpected ways as when this large carved monkey (left) was transported to Largs, for installation at Kelburn Country Park - by water!
I don't know where the idea of rocking horses came from, but I do remember his first attempt which was a rather basic outdoor horse that our son played with until it fell apart. After that, came a carved and painted pony, still going strong all these years later. It's a vintage item now and lives at the house of some friends where it was ridden by their four daughters and assorted visiting kids, our own son included, over many years.

Soon though, Alan was making the most wonderful carved sculptural horses: a string of them in oak and ash,  gessoed or polished wood, all with starry names: Rigel, Alpharatz, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Orion, Sirius... we lost track of where they went, although Zuben'ubi, a huge and wonderful creature on bowed rockers, stayed at home and lives with us still.
Mostly they were commissioned by grandmothers, ostensibly 'for the grandchildren' - but people would quietly admit that they themselves had 'always wanted one.'
We didn't make any fortunes.
Horses are hard, heavy, time consuming and expensive to make and whatever Alan was paid was never enough to give him a decent hourly rate - but that's the nature of the arts and crafts sector.
People did, however, start to call him 'The Rocking Horse Man.'

Just how sad can an old horse get?

Advanced surgery

After a while, he began to be asked to restore old horses so - having researched the whole subject - he added this work to his portfolio. We're not really talking conservation here, since most of the time, there was little to conserve. These poor beasts were battered beyond recognition: worm eaten, tattered and torn, falling to bits, sometimes badly restored by well meaning individuals, covered in thick gloss paint and with plaited wool or rope manes and tails. One actually arrived as a bundle of sticks in a box. Often, they had lost a jaw. Another had been burned on a bonfire by the 'nice' people to whom it had been lent by its previous owner, and had been rescued only just short of total dissolution. That one - restored to its former glory as a surprise gift for a retired owner - provoked tears of joy, and almost made us cry as well!


A brand new horse, leaving in a horse box!
Now, two of these restored horses have come back to us. On both occasions, I saw them in a saleroom with a jolt of surprised recognition. One is small, one is very large, and both are Ayres horses: the Rolls Royce of rocking horses. The large one has a rare and unusual side saddle, and probably dates from the late Victorian or early Edwardian period. The smaller of the two is a bit newer - probably 1930s or 40s. Both of them were restored with a great deal of loving care. It's kind of sad to see them on the market again - but perhaps people simply didn't have the space. We're in the process of rehoming them - you can find them listed in our eBay shop, The Scottish Home.
Alan carved other items, of course, not just horses. He spent many years working on massive outdoor sculptures of all kinds. Sadly, crippling arthritis finally caught up with him and he can barely walk these days, let alone carve. Instead, he paints in acrylics - bright pictures, full of life and movement and human figures- indulging a love of colour which sculpture seldom permitted - except where these lovely cheerful rocking horses were concerned.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Antique Textiles, Scottish Islands and eBooks on Amazon Kindle

When the gorse is in bloom, kissing's in season.
As many readers of this blog probably know by now, I have two jobs although I'd find it hard to say which is the  'day job' because I'm fairly obsessive about both of them. I buy, collect and sell (when I can bear to let them go!) antique and vintage textiles of all kinds - and research and write about them whenever possible. But the other half or more of my time is spent writing mostly fiction, mostly novels as well as the occasional stage play. Two of those novels are set on small Scottish islands and in both of them, the landscape of the novel is an essential part of the story.

The first of them, The Curiosity Cabinet, was published in the conventional way first (you can still find the odd paperback copy on Amazon) but when it went out of print, the rights reverted to me, and last year I published it on Amazon's Kindle Store. You can find it here, if you're in the UK and here if you're in the US.

Gorgeous cover art by textile artist Alison Bell
This is essentially a historical novel, in which the troubles of the past are in some way resolved in the present. The gorgeous cover was made for me by my friend and mentor, Scottish textile artist Alison Bell - it's as beautiful as a piece of lace, and I'm eternally grateful to her for it! The Curiosity Cabinet will almost certainly be of interest to textile nuts like me, because the 'cabinet' in question is an embroidered, raised work Jacobean box, and there is also a certain amount of description of period costume within the novel.

My other 'Scottish Island' novel is called Bird of Passage. (Or look here, if you're reading this in the US) Dealing sensitively with the shocking realities of state-sanctioned physical abuse and its aftermath, this is a powerful story of cruelty, loss and enduring love. In 1960s Scotland, young Finn O’Malley is sent from Ireland to work at the potato harvest and soon forms a close friendship with Kirsty Galbreath, the farmer’s red-headed grand-daughter. But Finn is damaged by a childhood so traumatic that he can only recover his memories slowly. 
What happened at the brutal Industrial School to which he was committed while still a little boy? For the sake of his sanity, he must try to find out why he was sent there, and what became of the mother he lost. As he struggles to answer these questions, his ability to love and be loved in return is called into question. 

Why am I posting about all this on The Scottish Home now? Well, if you're reading this blog during the week beginning 7th May, you can download Bird of Passage to your Kindle - free - on Thursday 9th and Friday 10th May. And if you fancy reading The Curiosity Cabinet as well, I suppose that means you could get two novels for the price of one. Other books are available, especially my big new romantic historical novel set in Poland. It's called The Amber Heart and there's lots of lovely period costume detail in that one as well. I'd be grateful for any reviews, especially if you enjoy what you read. And please do spread the word to anyone else you think might be interested in these novels. And if you want to read a bit more about my 'other day job' have a look at my website: 


Friday, May 04, 2012

Who is this Elegant Edwardian Gentleman?

This is a departure from my usual Scottish Home posts which tend to be about textiles, my other passion in life along with writing. And as regular readers will know, I quite often manage to combine the two, as in my novel The Curiosity Cabinet! As an interesting aside (well, interesting for textile and vintage nuts like me) when the Curiosity Cabinet was being prepared for its first publication as a paperback, rather than the Kindle edition, the publisher's editor queried my reference to 'bright Indian cottons' as anachronistic. It wasn't. It was about right for the time and place of the novel. She was fully entitled to query things she didn't understand, but this was one area in which I had done my homework, mostly because I'm fairly obsessed with such things!

However, this isn't a post about antique textiles, for a wonder, but instead, it's a post about antique and vintage... er... people. I buy lots of my textiles at auction, in various salerooms, as well as at antique markets, car boot sales and charity shops. But sometimes, I get a little more than I bargained for. This handsome chap - a head and shoulders portrait in oils - came with a bundle of very beautifully embroidered pictures - not hugely old, but well executed.  There is no name on it, and no signature either, but you can tell from the back of it that it's rather old and very nicely done. I mean he's a real person, isn't he? Unfortunately, I have no idea who he is - a Scottish Edwardian gentleman. He could be a politician, I suppose. He seems like a gentleman of consequence. Maybe he was an artist or an architect. Maybe he designed some of those splendid Glasgow buildings. If he was my great grandfather, I would want to know, but somebody cleared him out along with various household possessions, and put him up for auction in among a heap of other things. I'll probably try to 'rehome' him on my eBay shop. There are people out there who collect portraits even if they don't know who they are - although he's sustained a little damage over his years spent in somebody's attic, and could probably do with some professional cleaning. I like him though. I like his wide set eyes and that fine moustache!  Writers like this kind of thing - we're free to invent whatever we want, and that makes him intriguing. What do you think?